It started raining today after a few days of sun, and the birds outside in the garden are berserk with spring joy. There’s a symphony of birdsong that I can hear even through shut windows. The chorus changes, rises, falls, and is (rarely) silent for just a moment, as if all the birds are catching their breath at an agreed pause in the music.
The calming effect of birdsong has always been known. In our technological age,the effect we could usually only get by being outside, or having a window open where birds are singing, is being implemented in a variety of ways. Our human predisposition, won over the millennia, is to assume that when birds are singing, we are safe – it’s only when they all stop singing that we need to be concerned. Birdsong heralds the dawn, when birds slowly fall silent in the evening it is time to rest.
I noticed when flying through a few airports recently – in the UK and in the United States – that birdsong filled some of the corridors upon arrival. I thought it was a funny but oddly pleasant choice of background noise, but as it turns out it was calculated and intentional. Researchers and marketers are figuring out how to implement birdsong soundscapes to do everything from calm frazzled travellers, raise office productivity, relax patients in doctors’ offices and improve sales.
Some birds, like songbirds and parrots, are able to alter and modify their vocalizations, learn new tunes. According to Erich Jarvis, a researcher in neurobiology at Duke University, “Vocal learners all have a connection, or pathway, between neurons in the forebrain — a brain region that helps control vocal learning — and neurons in the brainstem, which control the muscles involved in producing innate vocalizations.” These birds share this type of pathway with a few mammals, including humans.
I’m not sure what this means for our ability to communicate directly with our avian friends.
I’ve been told, however, that a friend’s cockatoo once landed on his knee, set her eyes on him beadily, and said, “I can talk.” “Yes, you can talk,” responded my friend. The bird clucked, then went on, “I can talk. Can you fly?”
Just in case you haven’t heard it in a while, you can test the effects of birdsong for yourself. Here’s an good hour of the stuff. The video has a nice discussion of the difference between bird calls and birdsong.
Jarvis Lab – Neurobiology of Vocal Communication
BrainFacts.org article – Connecting Birdsong to Human Speech by Mary Bates
BBC article – The surprising uses for birdsong by Denise Winterman
Wonderful site of birdsong from around the world – xeno-canto.org